What do you think?
Notice from Paul Blumsom, social historian of the East End:
The armed services have always relied heavily on the working class for manpower, the recruitment and retention of sufficient numbers to defend the nation’s interests was essential to maintaining the established order. But those lower down the social order had a conflicted relationship with the military, many would have nothing to do with the institution, the lot of a soldier was seen as a dog’s life. The officer class had a cynical view of the men under their command, the Duke of Wellington described his soldiers as the scum of the earth but at the same time recognised their fighting qualities so: I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but by God, they frighten me. Characterised as cannon fodder, working class men would need some persuading that the army was a desirable way to make a living. Historically, the authorities had relied on the practice of impressment: the forced enlistment of men into the armed services by press gangs, formalised in the mid-seventeenth century. The army stopped the practice in 1780 but the navy continued until the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Known as taking the King’s or Queen’s Shilling, the acceptance of which sealed the contract. The payment became symbolic after impressment ended, although up until the early twentieth century, wily recruiting sergeants would reportedly ply likely candidates with alcohol to lower any resistance or reluctance.
By the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the reasons for joining up were many and varied. Charles Booth, the Liverpool shipping magnate and social researcher and reformer, believed that ‘love troubles or difficulties, or want of civil employment’ were the main causes. The latter situation was exploited by the army, the winter being an extremely successful time, when jobs in building and construction were thin on the ground. Deprived areas such as Bethnal Green were particularly fruitful.
But there were also other reasons for doing so, both romantic and pragmatic, often mixed. The need for adventure, an escape from the mind-numbing drudgery of labouring work, allied with three square meals a day, regular pay (albeit meagre), new boots and a uniform, all inextricably linked push and pull factors. Charles Wilson RAMC, the Medical Officer attached to the 1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers, a London regiment, during the First World War, had his own theory regarding why these men enlist, he believed that they were:
‘a breed apart, whose choice of career was a result of Darwinist natural selection, and he did not entirely agree with the commonly held notion that these were the ‘unemployed and the unemployable’. He saw something different in these men, that they ‘do not seem to fit into the structure of society’ and who are ‘vaguely discontented’ with the humdrum existence of scraping a living, the army an escape from the suffocating, mundane, labouring life. Routine manual work was anathema to the professional soldier, Wilson quotes Francis Bacon to illustrate this: ‘all warlike people are a little idle, and love danger better than travail’. But within this generalisation of an old army regiment, he identifies the Royal Fusiliers as having their own, distinct qualities; ‘the cockney soldier has become a legend’ which, it is explained, is due to the ‘quickness and shrewdness of the non-commissioned officers’. This in essence is the inherent ability of the resourceful cockney to live on his wits, a streetwise approach that enabled them to effectively adapt to the battlefield in an agile way, the survival skills that served them so well in peacetime were easily transferable to the art of soldiering. But he believes there is more to it than that. He suggests that, amongst a city of eight million people, a few thousand drifters, non-conformists, mavericks and misfits will be drawn to the army, seeking a life less ordinary – their sense of adventure overriding any tendency to domesticity, if any such tendency ever existed in the first place – giving the Royal Fusiliers its own particular character. Wilson also refers to the ability of the Londoner to use humour as a coping mechanism – self-mocking and ridiculing the situation in which they found their selves in equal measure – contrasting him with their colonial colleagues: ‘this gift of humour which encased our cockneys like chain-armour was not to be found among the Australians and Canadians. Perhaps nations in their infancy cannot afford to laugh at themselves’. Second Lieutenant Donald Hankey of the 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment described the ‘Cockney warrior’ as ‘infinitely brave without vindictiveness, terrible without hate, all-enduring and yet remaining his simple, kindly, jaunty self’.
The cockney soldier then, had his own distinct resourceful character that set him apart from his fellows. One particular soldier, my grandfather, served throughout the Boer War and WW1. To read his story, click the link in the sidebar.